Where rehab meets reality TV

Laura M. Holson / New York Times News Service /

Published Jun 13, 2013 at 05:00AM

Around dusk on Feb. 17, Dr. Drew Pinsky was sitting at the computer in his hillside home in Pasadena, Calif., when he received an email from a friend with some troubling news. Mindy McCready, a 37-year-old country singer and a star of the third season of “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” a television show that made its debut on VH1 in 2008, had shot herself at her house in Heber Springs, Ark.

“She lost her battle,” Pinsky, 54, recalled the friend writing. “I sent back, ‘Did she die?’”

“Yes,” the friend replied.

McCready was the fifth participant of “Celebrity Rehab” to die within two years and the third from Season 3, which ended in March 2010. When he got the email, Pinsky said recently, “I don’t remember doing anything. It is not my job to do anything.”

The singer was no longer a patient, but a few weeks earlier they had talked and he had urged her to seek help in the aftermath of the January death of her boyfriend, a music producer named David Wilson. McCready had, but Pinsky said she left the psychiatric hospital prematurely.

“I felt defeated,” he said. “The air went out of my body. I was confident that Mindy was going to take care of herself.”

It didn’t take long for the backlash to begin, particularly among those who have long claimed that Pinsky exploited celebrities too sick to withstand the scrutiny of a reality television show. In the week after McCready’s death, he appeared on “Extra” and “Access Hollywood” and was interviewed on “The View.”

“I didn’t want to seem avoidant,” he said.

When Sherri Shepherd of “The View” asked him if the public nature of McCready’s treatment had something to do with her death, Pinsky replied: “In a weird way I wish I could claim more responsibility for this. The reality is, though, I haven’t seen Mindy, say, in years.”

He said he was still shaken when he appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” on March 5 to discuss the insidious and often fatal nature of addiction.

“If we were doing a show called, ‘Cancer House,’ and people died, you’d go, ‘Well, at least you got them a few good years,’” Pinsky told a sympathetic Mehmet Oz, adding, “Addiction is not a curable condition.”

Though Pinsky seems genuinely saddened by the deaths of McCready and the show’s other participants, those setbacks have done nothing to slow his frenetic workload. He acknowledged that being a media personality has now become his primary career, after years treating patients with addiction issues. Still, he said he had no plans to return to “Celebrity Rehab,” although recently he has reconsidered.

He can be found five nights a week co-hosting the sex-advice radio show “Loveline,” which started his media career nearly 30 years ago when he was a medical resident. He is the host of “Dr. Drew on Call,” an hourlong talk show on the HLN news channel, as well as a frequent commentator on CNN and a reality-show guest host. (He recently moderated the “Mob Wives” reunion special.)

He and the comedian Adam Carolla (his most famous “Loveline” co-host), 49, take their act on tour, performing in clubs and theaters. And he continues to see patients Wednesday mornings at his office in Pasadena.

But what continues to baffle Pinsky, and what resurfaced when McCready died, is that people hold him accountable long after his on-air doctoring is done.

“They think I’m a millionaire and they think I am, like, rampaging or exploiting people to maintain that,” he said. “And that could not be farther from the truth.”

He recalled a recent show in Redondo Beach, Calif., when an audience member grilled him about a pornographic tape made by Farrah Abraham, one of the stars of MTV’s “Teen Mom,” a show on which he was a guest host.

“Somebody went, ‘How about your teen mom Farrah and her porn tape?’” Pinsky said. “I went, ‘My teen mom Farrah?’ I’ve spent maybe three hours with her, probably 45 minutes across three different shows I hosted. I know her. I’m available to her. I care what happens to that young lady. But I don’t produce that show. I’m not her doctor.”

However fleeting the contact, he said he can’t escape a negative association.

“She becomes my problem because of the choices she is making,” Pinsky said. “I haven’t seen her in two or three years, but I am a failure if she makes bad choices in her life. It’s like, wow.”

It was lunchtime in Los Angeles on April 16 and Pinsky was already well into a 15-hour workday. Having finished two podcasts with Carolla, he drove through midday traffic to prepare for his 6 p.m. HLN show. Later, he said he dined with Mark Geragos, a lawyer who has represented Winona Ryder and Michael Jackson, then drove to Culver City, where “Loveline” was recorded live at 10 p.m.

“I’m a workaholic,” Pinsky said as he plopped down on a tangerine couch at Carolla’s studio. He said he began to have panic attacks at 19 and was told he had an anxiety disorder while a student at Amherst College.

“I was a mess,” he said. “But I found my way through.”